What Did You Do When You Knew?
I attended an extraordinary event last night in Wells, Maine, at the Laudholm Farm home of the massive coastal expanse known as the Wells Reserve. It was, in so many ways, an ideal model of how to turn a community outreach into a happening.
The 100 or so attendees were able to mingle and network for an hour among a dozen or so vendors. Organic food was available for anyone who hadn’t eaten dinner and white wine and tea were in place for anyone who needed to take the edge off. The acoustic sounds of long-time Maine songwriter Anni Clark added an exquisite touch of class before the movie, A Chemical Reaction, screened in a retrofitted milking parlor. The local press was there.
The extraordinary moments came after the film, however, when eight panelists joined me on stage to talk about what they were doing to make their part of the world safer from toxic chemicals. Their stories were not unlike the ones that I hear told and re-told across North America . . . they are concerned about fertilizer and pesticide runoff issues associated with groundwater and surface water; they are worried about pesticides being applied around schools and daycare centers; they are frustrated about the misleading advertising from supposedly organic lawn care companies run by greedy con artists, who are simply greenwashing their chemical poisons. These folks on the panel also told uplifting and empowering stories about effective community action.
I loved hearing about Lawns for Lobsters, an initiative that came about after a conversation with a lobsterman who was concerned that lawn chemicals were reducing his catch. What a great example of finding a unique way to talk about the concerns of a specific community. The town of Ogunquit was hailed as one of four municipalities in Maine that have banned the applications of pesticides on public property. The Maine Board of Pesticides Control was represented by Gary Fish, who championed his Yardscaping initiative aimed at reducing pesticide and fertilizer applications. And Dr. Elaine Carlson shared mouth-watering stories about all the organic fruits and vegetables she grows in place of grass on her one-acre patch of paradise by the beach.
It was Paul McGowan from the York Energy Efficiency Commission who stopped me in my tracks. At the conclusion of his presentation on all the things his organization does to protect the planet, he cited a poem by Drew Dellinger titled Hieroglyphic Stairway:
It’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, and birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do
once you knew?
Those last seven words — What did you do once you knew? — are what I’ve lived by for the past 15 years, even though I had never strung them together quite so eloquently as this poet. As my wife can attest, I’m constantly awakened at 3 a.m. by ideas I can’t put back to sleep. As a 49-year-old father who has essentially made his own grandchildren, Aimee and Angie, ages 3 and 8 months, I’m often overwhelmed with a sense of urgency about leaving the planet in reasonable condition for their grandchildren.
What are we all doing now that we know what we know about the adverse effects of pesticides and fertilizers? How do we get more people to ask the questions that filled the air in that old barn last night?
Fixing the planet, it strikes me, is the easy part. Getting people to really understand that it’s broken — and that they’re empowered to do something about it — it what’s so damn tough.
For at least one night in Wells, though, this impatient, aging warrior really did feel like we’re all in this together.